Climate Change in the Carolinas

When Carolyn Hess moved just south of Hertford, North Carolina 16 years ago, cypress stumps near the mouth of the Yeopim River hinted at a vanished island that a decade earlier had been substantial enough to provide shelter for a local recluse. Hess, co-founder of the Albemarle Environmental Association, admits that she can’t prove that the now totally submerged island was a casualty of climate change. But she offers the story in support of Sam Pearsall’s hypothesis about what’s happening to the swampy chunk of land between Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds.

Tropical Storm Dennis ripped through Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in the Outer Banks in 1999, causing extensive flooding and forced evacuations. Global warming is intensifying storm damage and intensity.
Jim Motavalli

A landscape ecologist, Pearsall heads a pioneering Nature Conservancy endeavor designed to help ecosystems native to 500,000 acres in northeastern North Carolina withstand the ravages of global warming. He believes sea level locally is rising about two inches every 10 years, and, at that rate, "a significant portion of the peninsula will be underwater in 100 years." He also predicts that rate to double in the next century.

Refuge Biologist Dennis Stewart agrees. He says a pine forest that existed on the Alligator River 20 years ago is now a treeless sawgrass marsh.

Global warming’s effects may be more profound on this lobster claw of land than in other places, scientists say, due to low elevation and the nature of the peat-rich soils holding the land together. Peat decomposes at 10 times its usual rate when exposed to saltwater, Pearsall says.

Pearsall’s project eventually aims to keep peat sequestered under the soil by planting the coast with thousands of salt-tolerant bald cypress trees. "My working hypothesis is that the submerged trees will live for 200 to 300 years," says Pearsall. "Sediments will gather around the roots, securing the marsh."